As a woman of a certain (read: larger) size, I have complicated feelings about my body — and honestly, that’s a good thing. More accurately, it’s a step in the right direction, away from total hatred of how I look, which for a long time was my (and so many others’) reality.
As an adolescent in the ’90s, when the heroin-chic look was everywhere, I quickly picked up on the idea that thinness equals beauty. I went on my first crash diet at the age of 12 to try to make myself look more socially acceptable. As a nerdy, bespectacled kid, there was no shortage of things to make fun of me for, even without adding my weight to the mix.
I spent high school in an unflattering school uniform — which, admittedly, made dressing for school much easier — but panicked when I had to select outfits that didn’t involve my gray woolen kilt and a baggy navy sweater.
And when it came to choosing clothes, there was one word I heard more than anything else: flattering. “Is your new dress flattering?” “That top is very flattering on you.” “I’d get pants without pleats — they’re not flattering on your figure.” It was clear the goal was to try to pick the items that would ideally mask my flaws.
College and my early 20s were a little better, probably because I was at my smallest and worried slightly less about fitting in. As I got older, I found myself caring less about what other people thought of me and became more aware of the concept of body positivity, or self-acceptance. Slowly, I started to see bodies of different shapes appearing on TV and in some ads, and celebrities started speaking openly about their own body issues.
Did it totally change my life and my perspective of myself? No, but it did make me feel more normal and like more of a person who could be seen instead of constantly trying to hide behind uniforms or flattering clothes.
Flash-forward to 2018: I’m in my mid-30s and, thanks to a variety of factors, including medication that caused me to gain weight, I’m at my heaviest. I’m also the most comfortable with my body that I’ve ever been. So when I saw a new study that came out saying that body positivity and “normalizing plus-size” has added to Britain’s “ever-growing obesity problem,” I was curious to learn more about this supposed connection.
Published in the journal Obesity, the research claims that attempts to reduce the stigmatization of larger bodies have made the people of the U.K. blissfully unaware of their weight, putting their health in danger. Specifically, the study calls out the increased availability of plus-size clothing as one of the problems. In other words, treating more voluptuous people as humans deserving of clothes that fit is making people get bigger.
I have a few thoughts on this. First, obesity rates have been on the rise in the U.S. (according to an annual report, “The State of Obesity”) and the U.K. (according to research led by Imperial College London) for decades — long before H&M got an extended-size collection and Ashley Graham started posting swimsuit photos on Instagram. To say that body positivity is the reason behind these increasing rates is an extreme oversimplification and, frankly, fatphobic.
This attitude hints at nostalgia for the days when we were publicly shamed for the shape of our bodies and thus likelier to do whatever it took to make them smaller, healthy or not. In fact, wouldn’t a more telling study examine whether rates of eating disorders have declined as mainstream culture has taken steps toward accepting and representing different body types? Yes, our weight impacts our overall health, but so does our mental state.
Second, seeing more bodies of different shapes on TV and having clothing options beyond dowdy, tentlike dresses (though I do love a good kaftan) has not made me any less aware of my weight. I still go to the doctor at least once a year, at which point I’m weighed. This inevitably leads to a conversation with my doctor about my weight.
I own mirrors. I know exactly how I look. I’m also fortunate enough to be one of those more voluptuous bodies we’re seeing more of in the media, and with that comes plenty of… let’s call it “feedback” from people on the internet pointing out exactly what they think is wrong with me. Trust me: Hating myself and the way I look less now doesn’t cause me to harbor any illusions about my body, which I know is overweight. (And yes, I’m working on taking steps to improve my overall health — thank you for your concern.)
So, while the shift toward normalizing different shapes, colors and sizes of bodies isn’t the reason for increasing obesity rate, it has helped me — and others, I’m sure — to adapt a healthier view of myself, and for that, I am grateful.